When I saw The Mummy this weekend, I wasn't surprised by the movies many faults and mis-steps, all of which were fairly predictable and had been covered in most of the early reviews I'd read. But I was surprised by how much there still was to like with this movie.
In a way, that makes it more frustrating -- its so close to being something special you're left with this feeling of missed opportunity. But, much like with the 2010 update of The Wolfman, I really enjoyed the movie because the parts that are great are still great.
So -- what's the problem? Well, all the various cooks in The Mummy kitchen all have pretty distinct goals for this picture. Its supposed to be a re-launch of one established brand (the fantasy adventure franchise from 1999-2008), a revival of a much older brand (the horror franchise from 1931-1955 ; 1959-1971), the 2nd try at a launch of a new "Universe" of interconnected films, and a Summer "tent pole" Tom Cruise vehicle. All of those directions each have their own narrative needs, and generally speaking they're at cross purposes throughout the film. For example:
The Mummy has three opening sequences. The first establishes Dr. Jekyll, his secret (government?) team, and a lost Crusader treasure. It introduces a plot point for this film (the treasure) that could have been easily introduced later, but it appears that the intention was to highlight the "Universe" of as yet un-produced films front and center. Very much putting the cart before the horse.
The 2nd sequence is a flash-back narrated by Jekyll that shows and tells the audience everything there is to know about Ahmanet (the mummy in The Mummy) in as unambiguous a manner as possible. This sequence, of the three, is the most detrimental to the flow of the story and the impact of the monster. Every kid knows, monsters are scary because they live in the dark. They lose their power when you turn on the lights. What's more -- this scene is completely unnecessary.
About 20 minutes later, an archaeologist breathlessly translates hieroglyphics off of an imposing and ancient sarcophagus what amounts to the exact same story Jekyll narrates at the beginning. Its a great scene, but its impact is completely spoiled because we know everything all ready.
The 3rd sequence is where the film should have started, and my guess is that there was a cut where this was the plan. It opens the action in the deserts of modern day Iraq with the film's protagonist - "Nick Morton" (Tom Cruise), a devil-may-care tomb raider/government operative (of some kind -- they say Long Range Recon, but he seems more like a contractor), and his funny side kick (Jake Johnson -- who's great, and would have made a better lead for this picture than Cruise).
This scene opens strong with lots of action which leads naturally to the discovery of the mummy's tomb. The pacing with the tomb is great, and the camera lets the audience slowly explore the space -- which has great design and atmosphere -- while an archaeologist explains how everything about it is wrong. Its exactly the kind of thing that happened in old Universal films, and it was at this point that I really started to get excited. There are some very strong similarities to The Keep, up to and including the "This isn't a tomb, its a prison!" line, but it works and you really feel the weight of it. The tension builds ...
...and then is abruptly squandered by Tom Cruise doing something dumb and unmotivated (shooting a ornamental chain made from precious metal - that's thousands of years old and of untold historical and financial value - because he sees its attached to a suspended weight in the ceiling -- and releasing that weight obviously isn't a trap or anything). That kind of thing happens throughout the rest of the film, basically right on time to spoil any potentially horrific tension, Cruise drops a 80's action movie one-liner and the moment is ruined.
Its unfortunate because there are plenty of more natural opportunities for comedy, particularly in the several cases where characters are reeling from outrageous experiences (zombie chases etc.) and I think the movie would have been much better served by a funnier lead, who could have made the humor work where it fit instead of having to try and force some where it didn't. Cruise can be funny, but he's generally not. Here, he's in full "dashing hero" mode, so the humor is more about him making quips and less about him responding comedically.
I mentioned Jake Johnson above, a character actor who does great work playing lovable slackers and well meaning rogues. "Nick," as written, is exactly this kind of character: an opportunistic, if not entirely successful, self-serving thief who is chosen by Ahmanet for precisely these character defects. Cruise plays the character as a courageous, competent adventurer who occasionally acts like a jerk but also sometimes like the exact opposite. This is a "Jack Burton" / "Ash Williams" kind of character, and if Jake Johnson had the role, it would have been a Chris Pratt-style break-out for him.
The other major stumbling block is the insistence on making The Mummy the bedrock for "The Dark Universe" of planned films. Just about everything Jekyll does in the film is a distraction from the plot, including a shoe-horned scene where "Mr. Hyde" makes his computer-generated appearance. The climax of the film is ruined by the plot gymnastics necessary to turn Cruise into a super-hero, and the whole story gets written off during the closing Jekyll narration where he tells the audience what happened and to expect more of his adventures imply in forthcoming films.
A shared horror universe needs to be held up by its villains not it's heroes, and The Mummy ultimately sides with establishing its heroic framework ("The Prodigium" & "Nick Morton") over putting Ahmanet on the level of great screen monsters she could have been. In the first round of the classic Universal Monster films, they didn't use big names because they were creating a character, not casting one -- they didn't even list Karloff's name in the opening credits of Frankenstein, they just has The Monster played by "?" They also didn't cast Errol Flynn or Clark Gable in the hero role. A lot of that had to do with how the various studios and actor contracts worked, obviously, but also because they knew they were making horror movies - monster movies - so that's where they put their energy.
So -- yeah, yeah, another bloated big studio money grab, why should you care, right? Well, in spite of all those problems, there's some genuinely fun action set pieces, great creature design and a really compelling update to "the mummy" in Princess Ahmanet.
Sofia Boutella, who was an accomplished dancer and a gymnast prior to her Hollywood debut, gives a fantastic, physically commanding performance that single-handedly carries the movie. Cruise's name is the one on the poster, and he undoubtedly took home the biggest check, but without Boutella, the movie would crumble to dust.
Story-wise, Ahmanet is more or less a female version of the '99 version of Imhotep, sort of a super-powerful Egyptian witch with an implied Dracula-like control over crows, various vermin and the dead. Really, the character reads as very Dracula-like across the board -- and its really refreshing. She's very grand, regal kind of monster. After the two misfire openings, she's revealed slowly and through her actions. Her strength grows throughout the film until the climax...where its all undone by a cliche one-liner and a radical and un-earned character transformation.
Design-wise, there's a passing similarity to The Enchantress in Suicide Squad, but it doesn't feel derivative -- the two main contrasting looks for the character (flashback form in ancient Egypt and torn bandages over pale tattooed skin) feel more like call backs to Valerie Leon in Blood on the Mummy's Tomb and Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein.
Both costumes are revealing, but the character seems is much more in command of her sexuality than the only other woman in the film, the thoroughly under-developed archaeologist character Jenny Halsey (who is introduced as having been taken advantage of sexually by Nick, and then basically just clings to him helplessly throughout the rest of the film). Certainly there's missed opportunities on the gender politics side of this story, but Ahmanet's image is one that I think many audience members will re-appropriate after the specifics of the plot are forgotten.